Author of the Month
Marisa de los Santos [January 2006]
Chosen by reviewer Sara Lomas, MyShelf.Com
Sara Lomas: When did you decide that you wanted to be a writer?
Marisa de los Santos: I’m not sure I ever did decide; it just seems to have been part of my identity starting in very early childhood. I was a kid who collected words the way other kids collected bugs or plastic horses (actually, I collected plastic horses, too), and I loved them primarily for their sound and texture, for the interesting ways they bumped up against each other and made music. I would jot down words I found in books (I read pretty much all the time; I remember trying to read while rollerskating), and filled notebooks with lists and stories and poetry. But I think I decided to be a working writer in my final year of college, when I took a poetry workshop with the writer Michael Ryan. When he suggested I apply to MFA programs, I blinked and said, “What are those?” And I was amazed and dazzled to think of spending two years focusing almost exclusively on writing. Then two years became ten, became twenty, became a career.
Sara: What inspires you?
Marisa: Oh, gosh. This question is so hard. William Matthews has a wonderful poem called “Mood Indigo” that includes the lines: “. . .it came from everywhere. Which is to say it was/always there, and that it came from nowhere.” He’s not talking about inspiration, exactly, but he could be. I can’t remember ever seeing or reading or experiencing something and knowing, as the moment unfolded, that I was being inspired. What happens is that I’ll write the words, “subtle and ocean-colored” to describe mountains, then look at the words, and remember that time, years ago, when I saw mountains looking like ocean. I never stop marveling at the sneakiness and mystery of inspiration.
Sara: What is your writing process?
Marisa: With novel-writing, for me, everything, everything starts with the characters. They live in my head for a very long time before I write the first word of their stories. For example, by the time I wrote the first chapter of Love Walked In, I knew that Cornelia sings in the car, but not the shower, that she’s always loved riding bicycles, that she holds her body very still while she’s listening to someone talk. I included this last detail in the novel, but so much of what I understood about my characters enabled me to write them, but never became part of the story. Once the characters are alive, I need to have an overarching, bare-bones sense of plot, and then I can start writing.
Sara: You have beautiful, descriptive phrasing and imagery in your writing. Was it difficult to transition from the conciseness of poetry to novel writing?
Marisa: For years and years, when people would say, “You should write a novel,” I would say, “I would if I could, but I but don’t have a novel to write.” It was true. For years and years it was true, and then, for reasons I can’t explain, I had a novel to write. Once I had that, the transition felt entirely natural. In fact, despite the fact that I love poetry and that writing poetry is moving and fulfilling in so many ways, I’m more at home writing fiction; there’s so much joy in the process. I exalt in moving around the big, open space of a novel.
Sara: Your characters are amazingly real and vivid. Are they strongly modeled after people you know or are they mostly products of imagination?
Marisa: I consider that the highest praise, truly. As a reader, I need characters who live, and all the gorgeous prose and interesting plotting in the world can’t make up for characters who don’t feel alive. When it comes to creating characters, I’m a cunning and unrepentant thief. I steal all kinds of qualities, quirks, and language from people I know and from total strangers, but there’s no character in my novel who matches up with one person walking around the real world. And I make an awful lot up, too. Interestingly, I get a lot of questions about Teo Sandoval: Does he exist? Can you introduce me? While I know men (my husband, my brother-in-law, my son Charles, my nephew Simon) who are as beautiful, kind, and self-effacing, Teo is mostly just Teo.
Sara: What is your favorite part of being a writer?
Marisa: The writing. Even when it’s terribly hard and making me crazy, I’m aware that combining words to make people, a world, a story, is a miraculous and humbling privilege. When I’m writing, there’s a rightness to the universe; I know exactly who I am.
Sara: What is the hardest part of being a writer?
Marisa: At moments, the isolation of writing can be tough, especially on sunny days when I sit in my third floor office and can hear my kids outside laughing and shouting. The summer before I finished Love Walked In, I was writing like mad, and on the occasions I’d go outside and see people, I felt like Boo Radley: stunned and blinking in the sunlight, pale, and unsure of how to have a normal conversation.
Sara: What is the most interesting feedback you’ve ever received on your work?
Marisa: One online review remarked on my intricate sentence structure and on how I employ punctuation most people have forgotten exists, or something like that. I was waiting for the reviewer to use the word “Jamesian,” but, alas, no such luck.
Sara: Cornelia is an unusual name for today’s society. How did you come up with the names for your characters?
Marisa: I’m very interested in names and naming, the weight or lightness certain names carry, the freight of association and evocation names can have. I’ve collected names for years, and used to dream of being the person whose job it is to name streets. When I had children, my husband and I must have tossed a hundred names back and forth for each child, and I was tempted to have ten kids just to name them (a temptation you’ll be glad to know I resisted). I’ve tried to name other people’s kids, but find that generally people like to do that themselves, so it’s a joy to name characters. I love quirky, lovely, old-fashioned names like Cornelia and timeless names like Clare. Once I name characters, that’s who they are, the name has everything to do with who they become as I write.
Sara: Before the book was even available in stores, Sarah Jessica Parker was slated to star in the film adaptation of Love Walked In. How did that happen so quickly?
Marisa: My literary agent Jen Carlson doesn’t sell film rights herself, but she has agents she works with in L.A. At about the same time Jen sent my novel to publishing houses, she sent it to Shari Smiley at CAA, and I think Shari was sending it out before we’d even sold the book. She just thought it would make a good film. When I first heard that Sarah Jessica loved Love Walked In, I was so dazzled I babbled something like, “Oh. Wow. Wow! Well, Shari, thanks so much for calling to tell me that. I really appreciate it . . .” and I was about to hang up, when Shari said, “Wait! There’s more!” I couldn’t believe there could be more.
Sara: What do you think of Sarah Jessica playing Cornelia? Cornelia is very tiny and compared to a pixie. Sarah doesn’t strike me as either of those things. What do you think Sarah will add to the character?
Marisa: I think of Sarah Jessica as tiny, although I also think of her has having a big, glowing presence. I think she’s able to be charming and solid at the same time, capable of humor and pathos both, and I think of Cornelia this way, too. When I saw The Family Stone, I was so impressed that this woman who has always been utterly disarming and adorable onscreen could completely embody a character who is, in many ways, narrow, taut, and difficult to like. It made me think Sarah Jessica can play any role she wants.
Sara: Do you know when audiences can expect to see Love Walked In in theaters?
Marisa: I wish I did, but no. When I do find out though, I’ll shout it from the rooftops, you can be sure of that!
Sara: On your website, www.lovewalkedin.com, you mention that you’re working on a second novel that features Cornelia and some other characters from Love Walked In. Clearly, Cornelia is as compelling for you to write about as she is to read about. Do you think you’ll continue with her for a while?
Marisa: I don’t know. This miraculous thing happened to me a few months ago while I was working out at the gym. The second novel isn’t even half-finished, but ideas for a third novel just started to flow, with three main characters who have been fleshing themselves out in my head ever since. Cornelia’s not in that book. But she’s a very hard girl to refuse, so if somewhere down the line she decides she’s not finished with me, I’ll have no choice but to write more of her story. Actually, I’d love it if that happened.
Sara: When do you expect to have your second book out?
Marisa: Well, if the stars line up just right, I might be able to finish by Fall 2006. After that, it just depends on how much editing it needs and what my publisher has planned for it. The publishing machine moves in wonderful and mysterious ways. It won’t be years and years, though. I can pretty much promise that.
Sara: Although you’re having a lot of success with fiction right now, do you think you’ll continue to write and publish poetry?
Marisa: I suspect I will, eventually. I hope so, but I’m not sure. I haven’t written poetry in about two years, and my writing plate looks as though it will be full for some time. But poems can be a lot like Cornelia, they insist on being written, and if that happens tomorrow, I’ll do it.
Sara: What do you hope your readers will take from your work?
Marisa: I hope my readers walk away feeling as though my characters
are real to them. They don’t have to love them, but I would love
it if they experienced them as flesh and blood and if they found them
hard to forget. In my wildest dreams, Love Walked In fosters hope and
gives joy, real joy. And in my wilder wildest dream, people will finish
the book and decide absolutely to name their next child Cornelia.
What happens when you take an award-winning poet and allow her to write a novel? You get a beautifully worded and heartfelt novel called Love Walked In. This incredible story focuses on the lives of Cornelia, a thirtysomething café worker, and Clare a fifth grader whose life is turned upside-down by her mother's strange behavior.
Short but spunky, Cornelia has yet to find her leading man. Hopelessly romantic and a lover of classic film, Cornelia goes about her daily life contentedly even though her friends and family wish she would show more ambition. That is, until a well dressed man walks into the café and makes Cornelia wonder if she's finally found her Cary Grant.
Clare is a fifth grade girl who lives with her adoring blonde bombshell mother. When her mother starts to seem more distracted and less motherly, Clare doesn't know who to turn to. Her father lives far away and doesn't seem to care when she finally calls him out of desperation. With no one to confide in, Clare goes about the business of making everything seem normal as she relies on herself to get by.
I have not read a book this real and rich in a long time. The characters easily become like long time friends, as their ideas, dreams, and fears are eloquently and realistically revealed. Marisa de los Santos reveals her poetic ability in such incredible and visual passages as this: "...we filled five minutes with kisses so delicate, so intimate and gentle that, afterward, I walked up the stairs to my apartment, carrying the moment carefully as though it were a glass globe full of butterflies."
This is not just a story of vivid and compelling characters, it is a work of art. I savored every page utterly entranced in the world of Cornelia and Clare. This is definitely one of those books that is so good you hate for it to end even though you're desperate to see how everything turns out.
This is Marisa de los Santos' first book and I am anxious to see where her career will take her. With a strong debut like this I predict a ready-made success story for her. Excellent!
2006's Honorary List